U.S. experts concerned about efficacy of flu vaccine this year

A recent study shows this year's version of the flu vaccine was just 10 percent effective in Australia, suggesting it could be a rough flu season in the United States.
By Brooks Hays  |  Dec. 1, 2017 at 12:04 PM
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Dec. 1 (UPI) -- Health officials are looking to the Southern Hemisphere for clues as to what this year's flu season might look like -- hint: it's not good.

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health and World Health Organization met in Australia this week to discuss the challenges of producing an effective flu vaccine.

As summer approaches, the flu season is winding down in Australia and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere. But in the United States, flu season is beginning to kick into gear.

A new study shows Australia experienced an increase in influenza-related hospitalizations and deaths over the winter compared to last year. The research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests the vaccine in Australia had a success rate of just 10 percent.

Officials in the United States and elsewhere worry such numbers suggest the Northern Hemisphere could be primed for a similarly bad flu season. That could spell trouble should this year's flu vaccine prove as ineffective as last year's.

The same vaccine that was deployed in Australia is being used in the United States.

At their meeting in Melbourne this week, NIH and WHO scientists discussed how they might improve methods for synthesizing a more effective flu vaccine.

Last winter, the flu vaccine in the United States proved just 20 to 30 percent effective, which was a disappointment. As scientists recounted during meetings, growing influenza vaccines in eggs may limit their effectiveness. The vaccine strain can morph during incubation in the eggs.

As well, because the flu creation process takes time, the active strain affecting the public can also morph. By the time the vaccine is ready to be deployed, the circulating influenza strain may have evolved.

The latest comments from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists suggest they aren't sure whether this year's flu shot will be any more effective than last year's.

Despite the potential ineffectiveness of the vaccine, researchers say it still makes sense to get the flu shot. Even if an infection isn't prevented, the vaccine can reduce the strength of the virus, limit symptoms and decrease the risk of hospitalization or worse.

"It is always better to get vaccinated than not to get vaccinated," scientists wrote in the new study.

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